His fingers fell away from her skin and were held out for her to shake. Beatrice stared at those outstretched digits, then impetuously she grabbed at them, before flinging away his hand as though she’d been scalded. Without a word of farewell she hurtled out of the carriage and up to the Blackthornes’ house, breathless by the time she’d reached the top step.

When the butler opened the door to Bea’s agitated rap she darted past and immediately dropped her face into her shaking palms, making the fellow glance at her in concern.

Chapter Fifteen

‘Please accept my sincere apologies for having called so early.’ The impatient visitor shoved his hat beneath an armpit as he jerked a bow. Behind him hurried a housekeeper, who’d been barged aside by the fellow so he might waste no time in securing an audience with her employer. ‘I must let you know that papers requiring your urgent attention have just come to light, Sir Colin.’

In fact Percy Withers Esquire had known for over a week that a severe discrepancy had occurred. In the interim he had been frantically trying to discover how to mitigate his grave error in order to preserve his reputation as an attorney gentlemen might rely on to efficiently manage their business affairs. Having rallied his courage that morning, Mr Withers had set out without delay, praying he might deflect the barrage of criticism he was sure to face.

Colin Burnett rose to his feet, intrigued and yet also exasperated at this intrusion before he’d even dressed for the day. He tossed his napkin onto the breakfast table, tightening the belt on his dressing gown.

‘Well, come in, Withers,’ he invited, a touch sarcastically. He dismissed his hovering red-faced servant with a curt nod.

Colin had been renting this modest townhouse since he’d turned up in the city, and had pondered whether to invest some of his inheritance in buying the freehold. The staff would have to go, of course. He found them all—cook, housemaid and manservant—far too lax in manners and industry.

Confronted with the task of commencing his report, the lawyer seemed momentarily unable to do so. He coughed, jutting his chin twice in quick succession, his Adam’s apple bobbing nervously.

‘These urgent documents?’ Colin prompted, feeling in no mood for bad news.

He’d risen late, having spent a restless night brooding on the events at the Whitleys’. On the journey home Stella had nestled into him in the carriage while Mrs Monk turned a blind eye to her niece’s canoodling. But despite the heat in his loins caused by memories of his betrothed’s teasing touches Stella had faded from his mind when his head had touched the pillow, leaving just his former fiancée dominating his thoughts.

Colin regretted many things where Beatrice was concerned. Mostly he was sorry she had got herself into a bad scrape by listening to Sir Toby Kendrick’s poor advice. Previously Colin had harboured no opinion of Hugh’s elder brother; now he disliked the two men equally. Again and again throughout the night Colin had cursed his damnable uncle for altering the terms of his bequest and denying him the chance of contentment with Beatrice. Instead he had to contend with being shackled to a coquette and to receiving his solicitor at an ungodly hour of the morning.

Irritably Colin cleared a useable space on the cloth by rattling crockery sideways, then indicated Withers take a chair at the table.

Percy remained where he was but did bring forth a scroll from the cavernous inside pocket of his coat. ‘You might recall, Sir Colin, that shortly after your uncle’s will was read, and certain unpalatable clauses were found to be contained therein, you asked me to examine the document for loopholes to allow you to have a bride of your own choosing.’

About to reseat himself, Colin instead unwound, pivoting slowly on a heel, his features a frozen mask. For a long moment he said nothing, simply staring as the fellow’s complexion alternated between sickly pallor and bright pink.

‘Are you about to tell me that finally you have found something...when it is too late?’

‘I examined the text minutely, Sir Colin, as indeed I told you at the time,’ Percy lied robustly.

‘You did say as much...’ Colin remained unmoving, his expression perilously quizzical. ‘Yet I sense you are about to add that something vital was overlooked.’ He watched his visitor shift uneasily. ‘What was overlooked?’ It was a deceptively dulcet enquiry.

‘The authentic document.’ Mr Withers raised the roll of parchment gripped in his hand. ‘The other is a forgery, sir...’

Colin took a single stride towards the fellow, mouth agape. ‘A forgery?’ he bellowed. ‘Where in damnation did you get a forgery?’


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